The concept of distance learning has exploded over the past few months as everyone adjusts to the new normal of social distancing. Online tools are being rapidly and haphazardly deployed to meet the new learning requirements. Students must attend virtual classes, access materials and take tests online. Schools and educators have had to adjust to the lack of physical classrooms full of students, in person interactions and new home learning schedules .
Virtual learning tools such as Moodle and Blackboard are helping schools evolve within the digital world. Institutions are scrambling to roll out tools like these to ensure that they have the functional requirements for distance learning but they often forget to address other key aspects when deploying an application online. Functionality is only one aspect of defining an Application Experience [AX]. Educational institutions and their IT teams must also consider and address other AX components.
AX requirements for distance learning
First, beyond application functionality, the application needs to be readily available. Distance learning cannot occur when some students or educators cannot access the service. Load balancing technology monitors application health and only sends clients to application instances that are performing well.
The surge in the use of distance learning tools means that institutions need to increase the size and number of application servers they have to support the number of classes and students they are supporting. Previously, distance learning was an option. Now it is a requirement. The load balancer acts as a reverse proxy supporting a pool of application servers. Servers can be added and removed from this pool to adjust to changing resource demands.
Security is often put on the back burner in the rush to roll out new applications and deliver functionality. Students are inquisitive, creative, and are capable of testing/stressing the learning applications. Security is critical in the educational environment, not only to protect the integrity of the educational content, but also to comply with FERPA and HIPAA regulations. The load balancer is acting as a proxy and has visibility into the application content. The use of network security policies and web application firewall (WAF) technologies make the load balancer an ideal location to offer advanced security protection measures.
Ease of use
None of these things mean anything if the application and its infrastructure is not easy to deploy and maintain. The load balancer must integrate into other IT tools to become useful to the IT organization. We know people will take the path of least resistance and complexity is the adversary of usefulness. The load balancer should utilize DevOps tools like Ansible to ease the management of applications like Blackboard and Moodle.
Distance learning is here to stay
Even after this current global crisis is over, it is apparent that virtual learning and the digital transformation of educational services is here to stay. We must embrace the tools and utilize best IP practices to make them accessible for educators and students. The functionality of the applications is paramount, but as IT professionals, we must ensure that the applications are available, scalable, secure, and easy to use. Ultimately, educational applications are not unique with their IT requirements and we must apply out IT experience to make sure they are deployed in the best possible manner.